Strings and Things

The Scottish customs tariffs for 1612

On the 31st October 1612 by order of a Royal Warrant a new structure of customs tariffs for imports and exports in Scotland came into being. There were two lists, one for exports and one for imports, and the latter was by far the longer of the two. To simplify its collection the tariff duty on imports was set at 5 per cent of the value of the commodity and a list of fixed average values of the goods were adjusted and tabulated. This list of the ‘average’ values items to which the 5% tariff was then applied was so wide ranging that it provides one of the best contemporary examples of the prices that merchants were obliged to pay for goods.

From the point of view of those interested in the historical background of the wire strung harp the list provides some valuable insights into musical life in Scotland at that time as well as providing some useful comparative valuations of the metals that may have been utilised as wire harp strings. With three exceptions, two of them being of some significance, all the instruments known to have been used in Scotland at that time are included. The first instrument missing from the list is what might be called the percussion; whistles for ‘tabernaris’ are listed but there is no sign of the actual ‘tabron’. The ‘tabron’ was a smaller version of the more modern ‘bodhran’ which hung near the player’s waist and was played with one hand while the other played the whistle.

By 1612 the tabron, which would have been easy to make locally, had almost disappeared from Scotland so it is unclear whether these whistles were still for one–handed playing, or that the former name of ‘whistles for tabroners’, had been carried over to a whistle now with finger holes for two hands. The more conventional form of a drum which was known as a ‘swesch’ was just starting to appear but as the name suggests was originally developed in Switzerland initially for military use and would have arrived back in Scotland with returning soldiers from the European wars rather than through trade. When first adopted, around the middle of the century by some of the Burghs as a means of summoning their population by drum beat to hear proclamations, it still appears under that name in the Burgh records and the players themselves were known as ‘sweschers’.

Perhaps though the most significant absence from the import tariff list are the two indigenous instruments associated with Scotland at that period, the bagpipe and the harp, (both wire and gut strung), implying by their absence that they were certainly made in Scotland rather than being imported. However it seems clear that at least for those who could afford to buy them that the more superior gut strings were now being imported although there was probably still some local manufacture. Regarding the strings for wire strung harps there remains some uncertainty, wire of various kinds was being imported and perhaps the comparative values for the ‘raw’ materials which shows that there was no difference in value between ‘brass, copper and latten’ might throw some light on the subject.

Tin, the other main component of the copper based alloy today known as ‘bronze’ was also imported, but Lapis Calaminaris, the zinc ore that was combined with copper to make what is today called Brass, although also imported was oddly included in a list under the heading of ‘Drugs’.[1] However, these modern definitions of ‘brass’ and ‘bronze’ have to be ignored as they cannot be projected backwards in any meaningful sense to the period of the early wire strung harps.[2] At that time the contemporary use of the word Brass covered any Copper based alloys while the word Bronze only appeared in English from Italian via French in the mid eighteenth century and even then at first simply described a relief or statue cast in ‘brass’ rather than the alloy of copper and tin we know it as today.

The term Latten, (Scots Lattoun) seems to have been used, at least in Scotland, to describe the alloy of copper and calamine to separate it from the less costly ‘brass’ later to be known as modern bronze made from copper and tin.[3] However it could be also used to mean thin sheets of ‘brass’ which in turn at that period would have described any copper alloy so the description of 'Lattoun’ was not in itself specific. Looking for definitive answers to wire string material based only on contemporary descriptions is bound to fail because it is obvious from any research in old records that modern standards of descriptive accuracy did not apply then. Neither, given the large amount of recycling of metals along with the lack of modern quality controls in production was there any great consistency in the compositions of the various copper alloys.[4]

The original document is in the National Archives of Scotland but was published in an edited version in 1867 by H. M. General Register House Edinburgh, (the forerunner of todays National Archive). This was published at a time when efforts were still being made to reflect in print the original written style. Therefore the relevant extracts shown below retain their Scots usage and spelling as well as the Roman numerals used at the time. However the printed contraction which evolved into the modern £ sign is replaced with the nearest modern type face of 'li’, while the original shilling sign shown as an 's’ with a contraction mark above it is here simply left as 's’. Any other clarifications of the entries and spellings are dealt with as endnotes.

Royal Warrant for rate of customs and valuations of merchandies;
31 October 1612

Merchandise Price Denomination *
Brasse [5] the hundred weght xl .li
Copper the hundred weght xl .li
Copper wrought the pund viii .s
Citternis the peice [6] xxx .s
Claricordes the pair [7] iiii .li
Gitternes for musick the peice xl .s
Harpstringis the groce contening xii dozen xvi .s
Hornes called blawing hornes great the dozen vi .li
                                „         „   small the dozen iiii .li
Jews trompe the grose contening xii dozen [8] iii .li
Lapis Calaminaris (under drugs) the hundred weght viii .li
Lattoun the hundred weight xl .li
Luttes of Cullane with case iiii .li
    „     of Venice with case x .li
Lutstringes catlingis groce containing 12 dozen knottes xvi .s
        „         mynikins       „        „         „         „ viii .li
Stringes called Harpe Lute or Gitterne strings the groce xii .s
Tin wnwroght the hundreth weght xxx .li
Tin wrought called pewdar the hundreth weght xl .li
Viols the peice iiii .li
Virginalls the pair [9] xx .li
Wyre called
Irne wyre the hundred weght xxx .li
Lattoun wyre the hundred weght xl .li
Steel wyre the pund xii .s
Virginall wyre the pund xx .s
Whissillis for tabernaris the dozen xx .s
  „       for childrene the groce containing xii dozen xii .s
Wrests [10] for Virginals the groce containing xii dozen vi .li

* As explained in the text above, the printed contraction which evolved into the modern £ sign is replaced with the nearest modern type face of ‘li’, while the original shilling sign is here simply left as ‘s’.

[1] Under the sub–heading of ‘Drugs’ the tariff lists a very wide ranging list of compounds which suggests that the term ‘drugs’ had a less specific meaning at that period and would be simply described as ‘Chemicals’ today. Since at that period zinc was not recogised as being a metal, the alloy created by mixing copper with Lapis Calaminaris was not considered to be the result of mixing two different metals. See also Sir John Pettus’s comments in the Contemporary Metals page on

[2] For modern archaeological and historical purposes both terms have now been dropped in favour of just ‘copper alloy’ with the analysis of its composition given where known.

[3] Strictly speaking modern ‘bronze’ normally also contains phosphor so not comparable with the historic ‘brass’ alloy of copper and tin.

[4] For an example of the results of a modern analytical examination of early metalwork see the article on the Kilmichael Glassery Bell Shrine published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 142, (2012) pp 214–217, where the metal work which at the time it was made would have been regarded as ‘brass’ but today described simply as ‘copper alloy’ shows considerable variation in the actual composition of the various parts and includes both zinc and tin and is described in the article as ‘gunmetal’ (again like ‘bronze’ a retrospectivley applied description), an alloy of copper, zinc and tin with small and varying amounts of lead and atimony. It is also suggested that as ‘the range of composition is quite variable it possibly suggested that the components were cast without a great deal of quality control of the mixture that went into the melt’.

[5] The use here of the word ‘Brasse’ in modern archaeological terms should simply be translated as ‘copper alloy’.

[6] In Scots usage the term ‘the peice’ meant something similar to ‘item’ or ‘unit’ in modern terms.

[7] The expression a ‘pair’ is a Scots term and simply meant something was complete. A ‘pair of pipes’ was a common use even into the 1950’s and has produced much erroneous speculation about whether it meant a bagpipe with just two drones. The best example however is ‘a pair of clothes’ simply meaning a complete suit of clothes and there are lots of similar examples noted in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue.

[8] It is the most common musical instrument to be found everywhere although it is usually well under the music historians radar. They turn up in many archaeological excavations and it is the largest section of metal detector finds of musical instruments recorded in the British Museum Portable Antiquities Scheme, (Scots Law regarding such finds is different and has a separate recording system). See also Michael Wright, The Jew’s harp in the Law, 1590–1825, in Folk Music Journal. Vol 9, No 3 (2008) pp 349–371

[9] see note number 7

[10] The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue defines a ‘wrests’ as the keys for tuning the virginals although the term also covers any twisting motion including twisting or spraining a joint. Given the unit size of the imported items as a ‘groce’ or 144, a lot of tuning keys must have been getting lost. Even if they were the actual tuning pins it still seems a remarkable number needing replacement.

Submitted by Keith Sanger, 15 April, 2014

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